BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban are in the process of being resettled in Maryland. Many of those families are staying in hotels near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

While waiting for permanent housing, some refugees have been living in hotel rooms since October. According to Baltimore’s International Rescue Committee Executive Director, Ruben Chandrasekar, a housing shortage coupled with the influx of refugees is partly to blame for the extended stay in temporary housing, “upwards of three months.”

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In a phone conversation with WJZ reporter Cristina Mendez on Monday, Chandrasekar confirmed in the first three months of the fiscal year 2022, 400 refugees have been resettled in the Baltimore area, 360 from Afghanistan. This compared to last fiscal year when about 200 people were resettled in total.

Chandrasekar said IRC staff has also doubled over the last three months in response to the unprecedented amount of refugees resettling in the area.

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According to the U.S. Department of State, the evacuation event as a whole was the largest number of new arrivals at one time in over 50 years.

When permanent housing is secured through IRC, Chandrasekar said families are then notified. If a family declines IRC offered housing, the executive director said each refugee will be given their federally funded “welcome money” of $1,025 plus any other compensation owed, which is typically used for a deposit at an apartment or housing facility of their choosing.

After some refugees have recently declined available housing through IRC due to concerns of safety, lack of halal markets and mosques in walking distance, individuals have reported notifications from caseworkers that their hotel stay will end within days.

This, along with other concerns centered around individuals being unable to reach caseworkers for periods of time, receiving documents and healthcare has drawn the attention of community volunteers, non-profits and a civil rights organization to hold a press conference Wednesday.

Zainab Chaudry with CAIR Maryland demanded state and federal leaders put a moratorium on hotel evictions and utilize more advocates who may be able to assist families.

IRC previously stated their organization utilizes its own volunteers, plus those from other non-profits and congregations including Lutheran Social Services and Luminous.

WJZ followed up with IRC to confirm how long a family is able to stay in a hotel room after declining a housing offer through IRC, but did not immediately receive a response. In an email to volunteers and advocates following the 6 p.m. story airing on WJZ, an IRC representative said “none of our clients have been kicked out of hotels.”

IRC confirms about 20 apartments will be coming available over the next 4 weeks on a rolling basis. Due to confidentiality agreements, safety and security for clients, the locations of the housing options are not disclosed.

While many families wait for permanent housing, some are on the lookout for their documents and benefits.

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According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there is no general delay in sending Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) to Afghan refugees who have traveled to the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome.

“We are issuing the majority of EAD cards for Afghan parolees who were processed at the safe havens within a month. For those filing from outside the safe-havens, EAD processing is anticipated to take less than two months,” USCIS spokesperson Sharon Scheidhauer said.

America has welcomed more than 76,000 Afghans through the operation, according to the USCIS.

“As of January 18th, USCIS has adjudicated employment authorization applications for more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees who went to safe havens for processing after arriving in the United States,” Scheidhauer said. “USCIS has produced and mailed nearly 69,000 employment authorization documents.”

IRC explained it takes about 4 weeks for SNAP and TANIF cards to be activated, and about 8 weeks for medical insurance to be available after paperwork is processed. Refugee health screening through the Baltimore Medical System is delayed, according to Public Relations Director, Lindsay Hebert.

“Our goal is to complete every refugee health screening within 30 days of receiving a referral, and our average wait time is typically two weeks,” said Hebert. “But following the large-scale Afghan evacuation, the number of refugee health screening referrals we received between October and December 2021 increased 164% over the previous quarter. With this sudden influx, combined with the tremendous strain the current COVID-19 surge has placed on our staff, it is currently taking as long as two months to schedule these appointments.”

For those who do not have healthcare insurance, IRC said emergency departments and urgent care centers are utilized for those in need.

According to the Maryland Department of Human Services, the Afghan families in this situation have not yet been officially placed in the state by the federal government.

“The International Rescue Committee, through a Cooperative agreement they have with the U.S. Department of State, is responsible for all refugees and asylees during the initial resettlement period. State-administered services do not begin until after a refugee or asylee has been officially (federally) placed in that state.”

Following the initial resettlement period, the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees (MORA) acts as a continuation service. Once officially placed in the state, the program will provide support and services to refugees to “ease their integration into American society.”

Once a permanent housing option that is safe, sanitary, and affordable has been identified for Afghan refugees who have newly arrived, there is a short window to accept the option. They must act quickly or the agency will offer it another family so as not to lose a unit in a challenging housing market. IRC clients in Baltimore have been told that if they reject housing that meets Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration program requirements, then they will be responsible for covering the cost remaining in a hotel, according to State Department spokesperson Sonia Kim.

Resettlement agencies use a counseling process to inform new arrivals that they can assist with the housing search by identifying a potential apartment, Kim said. Bureau officials have been collaborated with IRC Baltimore to better understand the situation and confirm that the resettlement agency has been fulfilling its requirements under its agreement with the bureau.  To date, IRC Baltimore has not evicted any Afghan clients from temporary lodging, she said.

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Cristina Mendez